There’s no road to Misau. You won’t find it on an online map. And until recently, the only way to get there was to hike 15 miles (24 kilometers) through thick jungle and mud from the nearest town.
The remoteness is potentially deadly for more than 6,000 people who live among four villages there, on the easternmost side of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Buffeted by war and disease, the Misau area lacked medicine and vaccines. Even if it had the supplies, there was no way to keep them cool.
That is why something so seemingly small as a solar-powered refrigerator is both a tall order and a huge necessity for Misau and other places like it. A Switzerland-based aid organization, Medair, set out to deliver one last year, and filmmaker Vincent Urban documented the expedition.
In D. R. Congo: The Story of a Solar Fridge In D. R. Congo: The Story of a Solar Fridge
“I’ve been to other African countries before, but D.R. Congo is really a whole different story,” Urban says, noting that a main road from Uganda just dissolves into dirt tracks at the border. “The level of poverty, the terrible conditions of infrastructure and health, the massive UN presence, the security details in the places we stayed — all that was rather shocking.”
The Medair team traveled through territory that was both incredibly beautiful and dauntingly difficult. Delivering the refrigerator was an enormous challenge, requiring long hikes and treacherous driving.
Once in Misau, they heard heartbreaking stories. A father lost his child to malaria while trying to carry him to a town that had medicine. A mother, pregnant and suffering malaria, watched her child die in her arms of exposure when fighting forced them to flee to the jungle with no food or clothing.
Now Misau and three other villages have the refrigerators, which run on eight batteries powered by two solar panels. The refrigerators require minimal maintenance and are monitored by local staff, according to Medair’s project coordinator in D.R. Congo, Mikerlange Remplait. The health centers, which support a population of 19,000, no longer have to turn people away from routine immunizations.
Since being installed, the Misau fridge has had one minor setback requiring repairs; while it was out of service, a health worker hiked two hours to a neighboring clinic’s fridge to pick up vaccines. “Fortunately the others are running like clockwork,” Remplait says.
The refrigerators aren’t just a resource for emergencies—with reliable cold storage, Remplait says, “the population in Misau is much more likely to be immunized against infectious diseases, so the fridge will ultimately save lives.”
Urban’s film captures jubilance among Misau’s residents at the arrival of fridge: A throng of people surrounds the delivery crew as they carry it on rails. Crowds sing, cheer and clap.
“When people see that someone has come to their village, they are overjoyed,” a Medair staffer says in the video. “They really see that as a sign of your commitment to them and that you really care about their situation. That means the world to them.”